Outlander, Old Skool Romance, and Female Pleasure: A Guest Post by Kiersten Hallie Krum

I had lunch this past Sunday in Lambertville, New Jersey with my aunt and uncle. It’s a good midway point for me and my mother—they come up from the Philadelphia suburbs and we come down from the northeast corner of New Jersey—plus, who doesn’t like Lambertville? While we do this every six weeks or so, it was special this time around as we were having a small celebration for the publication of my romantic suspense novel, Wild on the Rocks.

We were chatting about my book, and my aunt cheerfully brought up how an old friend of hers who I’d met in my childhood, read “those books” back in the day. She name checked The Wolf and the Dove and I immediately did the adult professional writer, lifelong romance reader version of SQUEE!

Give Joanna Lindsey her due—and I did, plus a great deal of my money from my after-school job—but Kathleen E. Woodiwiss was la dame romance for me when I started reading romance novels around the age of eleven or twelve (I was quite the precocious child.) Shanna and The Wolf and the Dove were my top favorites of her canon, much to my parent’s chagrin, believe me.

Immediately following my ohmahgawdsheisthebest gush to my aunt, I added this caveat: “Mind you, those Old Skool romances got more than a little bit rapey.”

Which brings me to Outlander. (Stick with me. It’ll all loop back around in a minute.)

Despite the prominent rape theme that runs throughout the series, Outlander is not an Old Skool romance, nor from the rapey oeuvre of the same.

The highlOUT_107-20140513-ND_0669.jpgy anticipated (by me and millions of other devoted fans) second season of the Outlander TV series premiered last Saturday. The show has, for months now, generated some pretty frickin’ great think pieces about the female gaze in media and the importance and arguable liberation of female sexual pleasure in TV and movies. (Not to mention that charming, ginger hottie in a kilt.) (And the 18th-century shoes.) (And the outstanding costumes.)

These exposés on Outlander have been popping up since the show first debuted in 2015, but especially after that blazing unicorn of a perfect episode in season one, The Wedding. There’s been an additional slew of these articles on the interwebs as the publicity blitz for the second season premiere has ramped up in the last few weeks.

I’ve read a bunch of them, because they’re thoughtful and interesting, but also because, to my memory, never in my life have I seen something like this happen in pop culture. Never before has there been a show whose primary focus has been on the female perspective and celebrated female pleasure to such a notable degree that has so many people talking about it. (No, Shondaland shows don’t apply, but that’s another blog post.)

Outlander is unique, for this and more.

This highlighting of a woman’s sexual pleasure in media—and by “media” I mostly mean TV and movies—and particularly in Outlander, is getting column inches at the same time that a book on talking to girls about female pleasure is making the publicity rounds.

Author Peggy Orenstein recently spoke with NPR about her new book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape in the article ‘Girls & Sex’ and the Importance of Talking to Young Woman About Pleasure. Girls, she says, are taught by pop- and porn-culture to be sexy and sexually accommodating, but not to expect the same sexual prioritization in return. These days, sexually active young women are expected to give blowjobs, while expecting reciprocal oral sex—or, ye gods, even demanding to get it first—is not only verboten but frequently treated as disgusting. For many of the girls Orenstein spoke to during her research, it never even occurred to them to think there should be, well, let’s say equal play for equal pay. Orenstein’s research also documents that girls are using sex as currency—giving the BJ in order to get the boy to stop pestering them. (So, because the guy won’t take “no” for an answer, she gives it to shut him up—and that’s not rape? Hmmm.) The article (and the book) is fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

This all sounds really familiar because it’s the exact same kind of whacked out teenage sexual expectation I grew up with in the 80s. Despite the ahem years between then and now, looks like not too much has changed in the sexual politics of adolescence. Except to get worse.

But now, it’s being talked about openly and publicly. Now, we have shows like Outlander, and the think pieces it generates, to show young women that a woman’s pleasure is to be celebrated. That it’s a pinnacle to be achieved by one’s partner, sought out even, pursued, not a distasteful task (pun not intended) to be endured.

These conversations are being spurred by a television show and the choices made by that show’s showrunners and producers about how they bring this literary saga to the screen, choices that, again and again, turn on this “revolutionary” idea of focusing on—check that, prioritizing—female pleasure and celebrating the female gaze in the show’s construction and production.

But in this, Outlander isn’t as revolutionary as it may seem.

Because we who live in Romancelandia have had the celebration of female pleasure right at our fingertips for decades. (Wow, this post is really, unintentionally, punnilious.)

As I sat at that late lunch this past weekend with my aunt and uncle, chortling over fond memories of Aislinn and Wulfgar, I realized that, rapey or no, these books from arguably the Golden Age of romance, never shied away from a woman’s pleasure. Even in those Old Skool romances, it was when the hero brought the heroine to sexual fulfillment that a watershed moment was marked in their relationship. Not only because the sex was good, or that the virgin heroine (she’s almost always a virgin), had never experienced such a miraculous thing as an orgasm, in her entire life. But because her pleasure was as much, if not more, of a priority for the hero as his own.

Romance prioritizes female pleasure. As the years have gone on and the books have become more explicit, as erotic romance has become such a juggernaut of a subgenre, as “sexy” stories have become more and more popular, at the center of them all is the prioritization of a woman’s pleasure. And it’s been that way for a very, very long time.

In Romancelandia, we have got it going on.

Writer, singer editor, traveler, tequila drinker, and cat herder, Kiersten Hallie Krum avoids pen names since keeping her multiple personalities straight is hard enough work. She writes smart, sharp, and sexy romantic suspense. Her debut romantic suspense novel Wild on the Rocks is available as of April 14, 2016. Visit her website at www.kierstenkrum.com and find her regularly over sharing on various social media via @kierstenkrum.


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04/15/2016 5:41 pm

What the heck is rapey oeuvre ?

Reply to  Irene
04/15/2016 6:34 pm

A body of work by one author that features rape of the heroine.

Kiersten Hallie Krum
Kiersten Hallie Krum
04/15/2016 12:41 pm

Re: Sweet Savage Love–YES! There’s a lot about Steve and Ginny that is so so so not good, BUT there is also a lot that is great, and that scene is certainly one of them. Ditto with Wolf & the Dove. Aislinn never backs down and only stops fighting Wulfgar (or at least making it clear she’s reluctant every time they sleep together and making him want to work to coax out her desire) until he gives her what she wants, respectability and respect, and that frees her to give him her heart and, ultimately, everything *he* wants.

I used to read aloud to my friends the scene in SSL when Ginny throws Conception out of Steve’s bed (at the end) and the gives it to him with both barrels when he gets back from wherever–and then they bang. Ditto the scene in W&D when Wulfgar’s stepsister slaps Aislinn’s son and she goes apeshit on the woman. Those were the things in those books that resonated with me (some 20+ years later!) not the chain up the woman, rapey shit. Those are strong women who take a lickin’ and find out who they really are and what they’ll do to keep on kickin’ and their men wind up realizing they want the woman she becomes as much if not more than the woman she was and by doing so, their character grows and evolves for the better too.

Dabney Grinnan
Dabney Grinnan
04/15/2016 11:27 am

I’ve been thinking about the OLD SKOOL books I read that so shaped me. Sweet Savage Love didn’t teach me that I wanted a guy who would treat me like crap. (Bad Steve!) That wasn’t the part of the story that called to me at all. But, oh, the part where Steve drives Ginny wild with pleasure (the scene where he goes down on her was the first thing I’d read like), that resonated with me and I might have read those parts over and over. The same is true with The Wolf and the Dove. Wulfgar made sure Aislinn was having as many orgasms as he did. Here again, I didn’t get “”I want to be chained up and powerless”” out of the book. I got that for Wulfgar, nothing was more important than having Aislinn love what they do together.

04/14/2016 11:55 pm

I do agree that shows like _Outlander_ and the romance genre in general emphasize female sexual pleasure. I would say that well before _Outlander_ though, HBO’s _Sex and the City_ was an important watershed TV moment. My dear mother would sneak off to her room to watch it and giggle over it without my dad watching with her. By contrast my very Old Skool dad found the show uncomfortable viewing because of the overt feminist message that women had the same sexual needs as men and the same rights to them. I also would say too that I find the TV _Outlander_ more progressive than the original book, especially the first few where Jaime’s mastery of Claire was uncomfortably represented in a few key scenes. By contrast, the show has dispatched many of those sexually domineering moments, thankfully.